Backbench ‘revolt’ does coalition no harm

SO the Fianna Fáil backbenchers were angry and threatening to “revolt” – or so we’re told.

They were furious at suggestions that the Government would cave in to the unions and accept the unpaid leave proposal in lieu of a public service pay cut. They got tough with Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Finance Minister Brian Lenihan at a parliamentary party meeting yesterday and demanded that the Government play hardball with the unions.

But rather the backbenchers being a hindrance to Messrs Cowen and Lenihan, on this occasion they may have been a massive help. Not every backbench revolt is damaging to the leadership. The purpose of the revolt is the key factor in determining whether it genuinely spells trouble or not.

Usually, backbenchers who rebel against the leadership are trying to block something – for instance, the recent legislation which saw the drink-driving limit lowered. Transport Minister Noel Dempsey would have introduced far tougher sanctions in that legislation if the backbenchers hadn’t got in the way.

They didn’t want the tougher sanctions, and the cabinet knew better than to risk alienating them ahead of a difficult budget. So Mr Dempsey made some concessions by weakening the sanctions, the backbenchers reluctantly accepted the legislation, and peace was restored.

But in yesterday’s instance, the backbenchers were not trying to block the Government from acting. Instead, they were urging the Government to act. They were actively encouraging the Taoiseach and Finance Minister to get tougher with the unions.

What’s more, they told Mr Cowen and Mr Lenihan that the public was demanding such action. The TDs indicated they could only support the budget if such action was taken.

In doing so, the backbenchers gave Mr Cowen and Mr Lenihan all the political cover they needed to return to the unions and present them with ultimatums. After all, the cabinet needs the backbenchers’ support to pass the budget. If the backbenchers are demanding that the €1.3bn target for savings in the public sector pay bill be met, the cabinet has little option but to achieve that.

Or at least, so goes the impression that will have been left on the unions. If nothing else, yesterday’s show will have convinced them that their friends among the Government TDs are relatively few and far between right now. The Government TDs will have to return to their constituencies after next Wednesday’s budget and explain why social welfare payments were cut. That unpleasant task will be twice as hard if public opinion perceives that the unions have somehow been “left off the hook”.

So there is no appetite among the Government TDs for this to happen, as they demonstrated yesterday. By so doing, they placed significant pressure on the unions to stump up more than had been offered. At the same time, the TDs may well have eased the pressure on Cowen and Lenihan, even if the appearance of a “revolt” would have suggested otherwise.

“It served us well having the TDs coming out and everybody going mad,” one Government source admitted last night. “It did us no harm at all.”


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